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FIRST PERSON

Dad's Just a Reservoir for a Whole Lot of Worry

May 05, 1997|CHRIS ERSKINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So it's 3:45 in the morning and the kids are sitting in the hallway, hugging their knees and pretending not to be scared.

"Everybody OK?" I ask.

"Yes," they lie, hugging their knees a little tighter.

Waking up to an earthquake is like waking up in a speeding car. Except that you are in your pajamas. And it's hard to be brave in your pajamas.

As the kids huddle in the hallway, my patient and lovely wife rummages through every drawer and cupboard in the house, feverishly searching for flashlights. In a minute or so, she has rounded up only 200 or 300, all of them in good working order.

"Don't worry," she says. "I have more in the garage."

"That's good," I reply. "If we lose power, we can use them to broil fish."

We call her the flashlight lady. Respectfully, of course. She prepares all year for a moment like this, buying flashlights in every shape and size, testing and retesting, then storing extra batteries in the refrigerator. We may lose power, but we'll never lose light.

As she handles the flashlights, I go to my post in the kitchen, filling every available container with tap water. Jugs, soup pots, coffee mugs, vases. Doesn't matter. I fill each one to the top. Because in a severe quake, flashlights are important, but water is your most precious resource.

"What in the world is Dad doing?" my oldest daughter asks. They are all staring at me from the hallway, a grown man in his underwear filling an empty Pringles container with water.

My patient and lovely wife has already informed me that there are 15 gallons of bottled water in the house. But I don't care. I want 150. No, I want 300; I want to be as revered as the flashlight lady. So I fill and fill some more.

"Dad," my son says. "Can we go back to bed now?"

He is sitting in the hallway with his science project in his lap. For six weeks, he has worked on this science project, tinkering and adjusting his solenoid-driven electric flag until he's got it just right, the flag snapping up and down with the flick of the homemade switch.

It was the only thing he reached for as he came running out of the room at 3:45 in the morning, passing up soccer trophies and baseball cards and all the other things kids treasure.

"Not yet, Christopher," says the little red-haired girl. "You can't go back to bed yet."

At 6, she is already an earthquake expert. She knows that you don't go back to bed till the guy on the radio tells you how serious the earthquake was.

So she nestles into her big sister's lap, trying to be brave and chattering about everything she can think of--about how the earthquake felt, about what kind of ice cream she likes. Most of all, she chatters about what almost happened to her the day before.

"Dad, remember how I almost fell in the toilet!" she yells to me in the kitchen.

She tells the story again for the benefit of her sister and brother, explaining how her hand slipped and she almost fell into the toilet. And how could she, 6 years old and almost a kindergarten graduate, still be almost falling into toilets? Just the thought of it makes her giddy with laughter.

"Dad, do you ever fall in the toilet?" she asks.

"Not since college," I say.

*

This makes her laugh even more, the very idea that this dad of hers actually attended college.

Because if you looked at him now, standing at the kitchen sink in the middle of the night filling a mayonnaise jar with water, you'd think he was born worried and middle-aged, incapable of something as spontaneous and wonderful as falling into a toilet.

You'd think he just popped up one day in stiff shoes and Bermuda shorts, griping about the Dodgers and the stock market and the price of a gallon of gas.

To her, a guy like her dad could use a plunge in the toilet now and then, just to cool him off.

"I'm going to fill the bathtub," I announce, stepping over the kids in the hallway.

"Sure, Dad," says my son, moving the science project out of my way.

My patient and lovely wife and the kids watch as I pass, clutching their 300 flashlights and wondering which is really more bizarre, earthquakes or dads, and unable to draw any real conclusions.

"Poor Daddy," says the little red-haired girl.

I enter the bathroom and begin to fill the tub. Then the sink. Then several toy boats. I peer under the cupboard for more containers, into the back of the cabinet where no one ever goes.

"Hey," I call out to the kids in the hallway: "Anybody got a flashlight?"

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